Ask anyone older than a fetus’s age, they’ll tell you that film isn’t what it used to be (like most things in life and especially when it comes to the entertainment industry). Film used to be an artform in which filmmakers always took the long route in having their cinematic brainchild become a direct manifestation of their creative cerebral stirrings. Any compromises or attempts to tamper with their precious babies used to be treated as blasphemy or at least was met with violent opposition. Unfortunately, that was the status quo of yesteryear; nowadays the corporate-types pull all the reigns while the creative department sits snuggly and silently within the pockets of their double breasted suit jackets. Risks are no longer taken as such might result in a single dollar being lost at controversy’s expense. To find true art, you have to look under the heaviest and most obscure rocks in the forest, where independent filmmakers and nascent film students reside who haven’t yet had their quixotic hearts tainted by cupidity. Raw talent seems to only prevail in places like Sundance, as does DIY filmmaking; unfortunately, the loudest voice, i.e. Hollywood, knows only the easy way out and shortest path to a profit, the most commonly used shortcut sweeping the cinemas being the dreaded CGI. So tasteless is this accoutrement that is found in virtually every summer blockbuster that comes out nowadays, taking the place of actual effort on anyone’s part but a stock animator’s. CGI-filled scenes are always the most disjointed parts of a live-action film, and they are so awkwardly included as if no one in the audience is asking when all of a sudden the movie turned into Space Jam, humans and cartoons appearing side-by-side in pie-in-the-face, exploding cigar disharmony. While laziness seems to be the current state of the industry, and all last resorts are made the only resorts, movies will only continue to be of the most deplorable quality and relentlessly filled with this cheap caulking agent, a.k.a. CGI. Here are 10 otherwise promising and latent enjoyable films that were ruined by such heavy CGI implementation.
10. Transformers (2007)
While really every Michael Bay movie is synonymous with wasteful budgets, explosions, and a lack of depth (you could say the same thing about George Bush), this movie takes the cake (and then blows it up) as far as such crude characteristics go. Little thought beyond casting Meghan Fox, exploiting an old Saturday morning cartoon, and blowing up cars and buildings is at work here, and mechanically-hesitant computer renderings amount for the literal vehicles which somehow have driven this movie to a second sequel. Take out Megan Fox, or put her in sweatpants, and the story would likely be a different one. This movie epitomizes how such a lack of material, brainpower, creativity, or social relevance has no stake in Hollywood’s success when it comes to raking in piles of cash. Such seemingly low standards are self-perpetuating: while the masses continue to consume the mindless slop that is served at local gruel lines, i.e. movie theaters, the consensus is that we actually enjoy the stuff and want more, thus it is delivered in untamed proportions (and Michael Bay maintains employment performing virtual lobotomies in high volumes).
9. Star Wars Episode I (1999)
George Lucas’s strategy to create a saga in nonconsecutive order may have been a brilliant way to build suspense, but with suspense comes anticipation and ultimately heightened expectations. Lucas could hardly hope to meet such expectations perfectly; so, it would seem, he hardly even tried to. Continuity issues were the first issue to be addressed in such an ass-backward approach to film-making; you can’t embark on such an epic endeavor if you can’t maintain a consistent storyline. For the most part, that wasn’t an issue: Anakin grew up to be Vador as planned (though, in order to procreate and produce Luke and Leia with Padme, Padme had to apparently lack the ability to age during Anakin’s adolescent years), the empire became corrupt, the rebel alliance came about, etc., etc. The one thing not accounted for? The advent of CGI. Somehow CGI existed in the first three but only puppets and Frank Oz’s voice did in the last three (the “remastered” versions of the movies attempted to tie up this loophole by more or less ruining them with a CGI version of Jabba the Hut, amongst other things). The worst result of such heavy CGI outpour? Jar Jar Binks (and Pod-Racers). Meesa longs for the days when special effects involved little more than plumbing components and slinkies.
8. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
What do you get when you take the scariest part of the movie Jaws, the human-like intelligence of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, and fill the screen with bad actors and even worse CGI? This movie… and an animatronic shark. At least a robotic shark can actually pop out of the water and chase you in real time. CGI is can only be added in after a performance and thusly only after the fear has been fabricated. This means true fear will never take hold of any mediocre actor, at least enough to convey to an audience of incredulous beings. Now throw the eye candy in the water with Steven Spielberg’s floating tooth-bot and you might provide some incentive for actors in great need of it. Simply put, fake sharks belong on a screensaver, not on the big screen; either way, they are never cause for any alarm, and you’d much rather be watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel instead.
7. Van Helsing (2004)
The idea of putting all of the classic Universal Studios monsters into one film sounds like…well, a monster mash. Hugh Jackman seems like as competent an actor as any other to play such a role, himself being quite familiar with vicious transformations and half-humans as an one of the X-Men, but even his grit couldn’t add any meatiness to this shriveled-up piece of roadkill. Every vampire, werewolf, or man-sized bat that comes on screen does so in a highly unnatural and twitchy way that feels tawdry and completely alienating. Female vampires bats with slimy bosoms are gross enough, but just because they are undead, doesn’t mean they can’t be portrayed by living actors. This movie fails on all grounds associated with horror-movie tradition. What made the originals so effective was that human performers in make-up used relatable feelings of insecurity and fear of the unknown to strike fear into the beating and racing hearts of living audience members. Obviously the change of the times requires an update of sorts, but the simple truth is that CGI will never be scary because it has no believable application in the real world. As far as action scenes go, there is no reward for defeating something that doesn’t exist in the first place, or so the audience feels.
6. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008)
Harrison Ford accounts for probably over half of the CGI used in this movie alone for the extreme age reversing. Otherwise, the script was too ridiculous and farfetched to feel like it wasn’t trying too hard. The movie felt like it was produced on one big sound stage, leaving little room for wonder and making all the adventure seem too packaged. The inclusion of the aliens by themselves made this movie a farce, a black sheep in a franchise that already had its last crusade, although another one apparently felt it needed to be unearthed after a debilitating hiatus and much aging on Indiana’s part.
5. The Mummy Returns (2001)
The second in the trilogy (ugh…and that’s not including the Scorpion King spin-off), this franchise was birthed by an extremely enjoyable first film, which made ancient Egyptian theology come alive in a very literal way. As magic seems never to be planned but is often unsuccessfully reproduced, this film followed suit by taking the original, successful formula and simply multiplying the ingredients: more mummies, more chase scenes, more reincarnations, and more scenery chomping. All’s well so far, except for the computer-generated mummies (which fail to scare on behalf of how unreal they look), until the Scorpion King appears, which looks like the Rock was taken from a WWF Smackdown video game for the PS2 and adjoined to the body of a huge, centaur-esque scorpion. The result is a confused looking piece of sloppy artificial intelligence, clumsily stumbling around as if experiencing a technical glitch. When a synthetic Brendan Frasier dives to catch a computer-generated spear, it’s enough to make you want to be mummified alive. When the third Mummy installment takes place in China and doesn’t even have any true mummies in it, though almost a 100% CGI-driven plot, it makes you wonder if there’s an executive office in L.A. which contains no more than three monkeys holding darts, some copies of the National Geographic, and a note-taking secretary.
4. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
This sequel (as well as the subsequent three-quel) was really unneeded. The first film summed up everything that needed to be and stood alone as a brilliant cinematic achievement in its own rite. If anything, Reloaded just gives rabid fans another chance to indulge in the fantasy world that was so perfectly created the first time around; we really just wanted to see Neo plug back into the Matrix and defile more Agents so we could plug ourselves in as well once more. The added characters and conceptual expansion made it all the more deep, making all the Kung Fu and firepower seem a little more intellectually-involved. What hurt this film in a critical way was its trading in of wires and choreography for the fatuous use of CGI (which saves money and time while wasting that of the moviegoers). Money was an obvious factor for the Wachowski Brothers who seemed unashamed of throwing their brilliance out into a river of trashy exploitation (later they would forget to flush their excrements and produce a live-action Speed Racer movie, i.e. a turd on wheels). CGI was what allowed a thousand Agent clones to be sweep kicked by a rubbery looking Keanu Reeves, and even while Keanu lacks a great amount of facial expression in real life, his CGI counterpart somehow managed to omit a few more expressions. Such bluntly-reoccurring scenes immediately take you out of the movie and really make you see the difference between the real world and that which the Matrix portrays (maybe it’s intentional, though countless examples of the same insufferable situation beg to differ).
3. Superman Returns (2006)
Really, most comic book movies as of late could fit onto this list (Fantastic Four 1 and 2, Dare Devil, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Blade 2 and 3) but such are so endlessly forthcoming that they require exclusive devotion. It’s easy to predict a failure, for instance, a three-quel when the sequel was God-awful. Also, no movie with a mainstream comic book hero and team that’s made it to the big screen in the last ten years has successfully shed its hand-sketched origins (as live-action movies tend never to consist exclusively of live actors). Superman was an especially big letdown because it seemed like a franchise long in need of a reboot. After all, with the success of Batman’s sexy new overcoat (with the aid of director Christopher Nolan) and Spider-Man’s drool-inducing cinematic deflowering, Superman seemed like the next worthy contender, being in a similar league of high-profile heroism. It might have been a good fight, if they even tried to make it not suck. The script, after all, seemed to be little more than a replication of the original Christopher Reeves film’s: Lex Luthor is still the villain (and only villain), Superman saves the same plummeting airplane and offers the same robotic one-liner, and once again we see young Clark Kent realizing his inhuman abilities at his adoptive family’s farm. Essentially nothing’s changed since his 19-year absence (that is, since the last installment of the previous franchise), nothing except the fact that every one of his flying scenes is CGI-affected, and every time he flies, the spectator gets a big close-up of how much of a sham this superhero really is. It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s an illusion. This movie turned out to be no more than a box-office opportunity to capitalize on the high-flying, graphic-novel-meets-the-big-screen craze in disguise.
2. King Kong (2005)
This movie was breathtaking. Then King Kong and his overgrown creature friends appeared on screen. The idea of making this movie take place in New York in the thirties was a great one; the imagery was delightful, evoking a glamorous era of a city long since jaded to its formerly romantic ideals of booming industry and individual success. The cinematography and thematic Depression-Era overtones glimmered in a highly appealing way, making the movie seem more contentious than just a revamped Hollywood monster movie. You’d think that adapting J.R.R. Tolkien successfully was proof that anything adapted subsequently would have to be golden; when the crew reaches Skull Island and gets pummeled (for about two hours of the three) by giant insects, dinosaurs, and finally the ape, it makes you long for the old-school claymation. At least the lump-of-coal-looking original was actually made out of something that could be readily worked with. Seeing Naomi Watts fall in love with Kong just reminds me of the crush I used to have on Daphne from Scooby Doo. Synthetic images will never feel congruous to real ones, and you can never tell someone to see something within a Rorschach inkblot if it doesn’t come natural.
1. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Tim Burton used to be a conceptually-brilliant director with a signature style that was undeniably salient in everything he put his hands on, his high points being with cinematic marvels like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood where his creativity truly ran amok in a very tangible way. His true forte was underlying dark (characteristically gothic) imagery with trenchant social commentary, a camera and story providing only the mediums for expression (regularly casting Johnny Depp didn’t hurt either). It may be a sad truth to conclude that he’s surpassed his peak as director, his valleys being in rehashes and adaptations like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and most recently Alice in Wonderland. The latter was as much a travesty as it was a tragedy, seeing such a watered down, profit-seeker document Burton’s most subdued level of creativity. This should have been a field day for him to adapt Lewis Carrol’s tale of distorted perception and the preservation of imagination, but it amounted to little more than a cheap kiddie flick and hardly a swing from the fully-animated Disney cartoon. First of all, this film wasn’t even filmed for 3D, though it was sold and featured as such; that alone says how little of Burton’s autonomy was involved. He may have been responsible for a few flourishes of macabre imagery (decapitated heads floating in the Queen’s moat, the inordinate amount of eyeballs poked out, the occasional creepy- looking tree, etc.), but the overt showiness of the deliberated action sequences (as opposed to feathery nuances he would have included in a film with more substance) and inundating, not to mention jarring, CGI usage defies the Burton everyone (but small children) knows and loves. Each of the Tweedles looked like a cheap 3D rendering of Charlie Brown (if he had an identical twin) while the Queen looked like a cheat code was unlocked in an old Nintendo 64 game that makes all the enemies’ heads swell to a comically-large size. Good news: a video game adaptation of the movie would be an easy transition. The choppy visuals would be nothing out of the ordinary for gamers with immensely low standards.